Arsenal overcame a physical and fiery Sunderland side at the Stadium of Light, but the joy of victory will have been tempered by a second-half injury to Jack Wilshere.
Arsene Wenger’s side took the lead in the 35th minute, as Theo Walcott set up Santi Cazorla to smash a low drive past Simon Mignolet from 20 yards. Reduced to 10 men in the second half, the Gunners had to cling on for three huge points.
Captain Lee Cattermole returned to the Sunderland starting XI in place of former Gunner Sebastian Larsson, while Tottenham loanee Danny Rose was picked at left-back.
Laurent Koscielny, a doubt before the game, limped out of the pre-match warm-up so was replaced by Carl Jenkinson, with Bacary Sagna moving to centre-back. Elsewhere, Aaron Ramsey and Cazorla came in for Abou Diaby and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The match began at a furious pace with Wenger gesticulating angrily from the sidelines as the Black Cats threw themselves into thunderous tackles – Cattermole was booked after just 80 seconds – though the Frenchman’s side did not wilt in the face of such physicality.
Jack Wilshere, who starred for England against Brazil in midweek, threaded a pass behind the Sunderland defence for Olivier Giroud, but the Frenchman dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Minutes later Wilshere was involved again, back-heeling the ball to Ramsey on the edge of the box after a mazy run forward. The Welshman’s powerful effort took a nick off Titus Bramble and flew towards the top corner, but Mignolet soared through the air and palmed the ball away.
Arsenal’s number 10 was beginning to take a firm grip on the match, and another silky foray towards goal created the Gunner’s opener. Wilshere found Walcott on the edge of the box who laid the ball off to Cazorla, and the Spaniard rifled a left-footed shot into the far corner of the goal.
Ramsey could have doubled Arsenal’s lead just before the break, latching on to Giroud’s deflected pass, but fired straight at Mignolet from close range.
Just five minutes after the restart, Wilshere – already carrying a heavy bandage on his thigh – was forced off after a body-check by Alfred N’Diaye, and the 21-year-old’s exit signalled a shift in momentum.
Sunderland began to commit more men forward; N’Diaye robbed Ramsey in midfield and galloped towards goal, reversing the ball to Steven Fletcher, but the frequently isolated Scot slashed his left-footed shot wide of the near post.
The impetus shifted further when Jenkinson, booked in the first half, picked up a second yellow card for a late lunge on Stephane Sessegnon. The Benin winger should have carved out an equaliser soon after, but could not find a red and white shirt with his cross.
As the Black Cats flooded forward, bombarding the box with crosses aimed at substitute and home debutant Danny Graham, Arsenal found space on the break. Cazorla released Walcott, but the winger-cum-striker’s dinked finish struck the post and bounced clear.
Arsenal had Wojciech Szczesny to thank for clinging onto three points. First the Pole rushed off his line to save Fletcher’s shot with his legs, then he palmed the Scot’s header behind for a corner.
From the resulting set-piece, Fletcher’s poked effort was clawed off the line by the Gunners keeper before Bramble thumped the loose ball high and wide. Arsenal held on, and remain four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham.